She Ain't Me may be Carrie Rodriguez' second solo album, but to the Texas-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter-fiddler, it's less a follow-up than a new beginning. "It feels like a debut to me because I did way more songwriting than ever before," she says, in her sing-song twang, "and the sound is more my own than anything I've done so far."
Compared to the traditional, acoustic Seven Angels on a Bicycle, which she released in 2006, She Ain't Me rocks harder in its rootsiness, sounding more textured, adventurous, and confident. It's a different sensibility from what sounds like a very different artist.
Even the title implies a change — a self-definition by negation. Rodriguez ain't the girl who as a teenager played violin on stage with her father, Texas singer-songwriter David Rodriguez, and she ain't the woman who studied music at Oberlin and Berklee. She ain't the college student who sat in with family friend Lyle Lovett for a soundcheck, and she ain't the woman who backed singer-songwriter Chip Taylor for three years and countless concerts.
"That's why I picked that as the title for the record," Rodriguez says. "I wanted to prepare people who were thinking that they might get another sweet folk album. There are elements of that in there but certainly a lot of other feelings and moods."
Of course, all the women she now ain't still inform the musician Rodriguez has become. While she was studying violin in college, the bluegrass musician Casey Driessen taught her the basics of the fiddle. Upon graduating, she got a gig backing Taylor, who is best known for writing "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning." Touring and recording with the music veteran, she says, was an education in itself. After coming from a classical background, which emphasized precision above all else, Rodriguez learned to loosen up a bit. "He would help me take what I had naturally and make it as honest as possible," she recalls. "That's the biggest thing I learned from him — not to worry about being perfect but to just be real and feel the song."
She Ain't Me is Rodriguez' first album without Taylor's input, which she admits was both intimidating and innervating. Where he wrote or co-wrote all the songs on Seven Angels, for the new record Rodriguez worked with Louisiana musician Mary Gauthier, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks — musicians she had long admired and dreamed of working with.
"I'd been out on the road with Mary before," Rodriguez says, "but I didn't know Gary and Dan from Adam. My label hooked me up with them, and I just showed up at their houses in Minneapolis with my guitar and fiddle. That was scary, but as soon as I met them, I felt completely comfortable and at home.
"I think because I was a sideman first, I got used to playing with others and feeding off people in a band situation," she continues. "I am most comfortable and most inspired when I am trading off with someone, whether it's jamming or writing a song."
Her newfound confidence hasn't come easy, especially as a singer. When she began working with Taylor, "I had never sung harmony with anyone in a band situation," she says. "Even when we became a duet act and made records, I still couldn't believe I was singing in front of people. I studied the violin for so many years, slaving away and practicing five or six hours a day. Because I didn't do that with singing, it doesn't feel right to say I'm a singer."
Nevertheless, She Ain't Me portrays Rodriguez as a capable and self-assured vocalist whose voice conveys a wider range of feeling and a more identifiable personality than even her co-written lyrics do. The title track, about decoding a cheating lover's behavior, doesn't sound angry or even heartbroken but something slightly more complex and unexpected. Rodriguez sings like she feels sorry for her cheating man, spiking the chorus with not-so-subtle condescension: "Whoever Miss Whoever is... she ain't me." On the next song, however, she's singing in a bruised falsetto, her words on "Rag Doll" tumbling out in an affecting whisper. Against the programmed beat and the hounding backing vocals of "The Big Mistake," she determinedly keeps her composure even as she worries over a damning regret.
If Rodriguez is more confident as a fiddler than as a singer or as a songwriter, She Ain't Me, ironically, features her violin on only two tracks. "I didn't feel like it fit the songs," she explains, noting that throughout the album she plays mostly electric tenor guitar and electric mandolin, which have two fewer strings than a guitar. "I tune them up like a fiddle and viola! I know where the chords are. I'm a four-string kind of girl."
By playing away from Rodriguez' strengths, She Ain't Me manages to find different strengths: straightforward collaborative songwriting, intricate but intuitive arrangements, and a surprisingly expressive voice at the center. She ain't playing second fiddle anymore.
The Hi-Tone Café
Saturday, November 15th
Doors open at 8 p.m.; admission $10